From massive hit singles to suing hip hop samplers, Gilbert O’Sullivan has had quite a career, writes Richard Fitzpatrick
WE’RE seeing more these days of Gilbert O’Sullivan, who returns to Ireland this week for several gigs, than we did for decades.
The Waterford-born artist has been touring more of late than he did during the 1970s when he was, at one stage, the world’s biggest-selling solo artist.
He performed his first live concert at the National Stadium in Dublin two years after the release of his 1970 breakout hit single, ‘Nothing Rhymed’. He remembers the night vividly.
“It was absolute magic, a night I will never forget. I remember the theatre — it was like being in a boxing ring. The crowd were just unbelievable. The interesting thing about me being an artist in Ireland, having all that success — this is all pre-U2, pre-Thin Lizzy and all these people — was that there was very few of anybody like me who had come from Ireland, or who had had that global success. The people really cottoned onto that.”
O’Sullivan — who releases his 23rd studio album, Latin ala G! on June 8 — was born in 1946. It was later that he traded Raymond for his stage name, Gilbert.
His brother Kevin, one of five siblings, works as his personal assistant. The family grew up on the Cork Rd, Co Waterford, before emigrating when O’Sullivan was seven.
His father, who was a butcher with Clover Meats, got a job offer in England, and they settled in Swindon.
“I’ll never lose the Irish in me,” he says.
“My mother — who is 94 — and I are the only ones in our family who still sound Irish on the phone, apparently. I’m proud of my Irish roots but I’m very much an English songwriter in the tradition of Ray Davies and Paul McCartney because that’s where I learnt my craft, reading newspapers, hearing the colloquialisms of the way people speak around you.”
It was the accessible, everyman appeal of O’Sullivan’s catchy pop song lyrics that led to numerous No 1 hits, including ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’, which spent six weeks at the top of US Billboard Hot 100 singles charts in 1972.
He credits The Beatles, who couldn’t read music but could fashion classic songs, as being a catalyst for him.
“The Beatles wrote great songs and the second thing was they looked differently. They had mop-top haircuts. They had collarless jackets.That really resonated with me, which meant that by 1966 when I decided to become a singer, moving to London, image was very important to me. But it was impossible at that point to do something different that looked good because long hair was here to stay.”
O’Sullivan created a character called Gilbert, hired a Charlie Chaplin jacket from theatrical costumers, and cut his hair short like an army recruit, “which of course today looks really fashionable,” he says, “but in those days made me look like a freak.”
None of the suits in the record industry dug the image, though.
“When I presented it to the people at CBS, my first record company, I said, ‘Look at this — I’m 19 years of age. I dress up in Charlie Chaplin jacket with cap and boots. It should be Manna from Heaven for you.’ They said, ‘Oh no, no. Please, please put on a pair of jeans and grow your hair.’
“Phil Solomon’s people at Major Minor Records didn’t like it. When [music manager] Gordon Mills came along, he didn’t like the image, but he did like my songs. He felt that if I could continue writing the songs on the tape he heard, he was quite happy to put up with the image. I’m so pleased when I look back at that image now at how good it looked whereas if I look back at me dressing with really long hair, platform shoes, and flared trousers, I cringe.”
O’Sullivan approached Mills, who looked after artists like Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, to be his manager. He also produced all his records.
He became “a father figure” to O’Sullivan, who used to babysit for Mills and his wife. O’Sullivan wrote his No 1 single, ‘Clair’, about their 3-year-old daughter.
It was written “not for her, but for the parents,” he said in the RTÉ documentary, Gilbert O’Sullivan: Out on his Own. He eventually parted from his manager, however.
“Part of the problem with Gordon was that by about 1974-75 he was spending more time away,” he says.
“He had a private zoo with tigers and gorillas. I’m very ambitious, always have been. I was saying to Gordon, ‘Why don’t we do what Rod Stewart did — go to an American producer? The success is wearing off. Why don’t you let me work with other producers? It could be a good spark.’
“Gordon said, ‘No — if I don’t produce your records, that’s it.’ The hardest decision for me was to spend the weekend walking around my home, which was close to his home, knowing what I had to tell him. I said ‘That’s it then’ after all the success he had done for me.”
ME AND THE BIZ
O’Sullivan sued for royalties and won. It was a landmark copyright ruling.
He also set a precedent for a case taken against Biz Markie in 1991. O’Sullivan objected to the hip-hop artist’s sampling of ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’, a song about bereavement and suicide, for a “comic scenario”.
O’Sullivan won again, but at personal cost, he admits.
“When Biz Markie sampled ‘Alone Again’ he didn’t ask before doing it. He refused to withdraw it. I had to go to New York. Spend hundreds of thousands of pounds to get him into court, to win a case that I should never have had to fight.
“I had to be the first person to sit on the stand, and be questioned. He didn’t even turn up. Other people representing him were there. I had to go through all that.
“Believe me it isn’t pleasant. You sit with lawyers who train you and teach you what you need to do in court. I’m saying, ‘This should be an open-and-shut case.’
“We won the case but all I can say is you can do without it. Who wants to go to court? I didn’t want to sue Gordon Mills. He could have easily have given me ‘an interest in (the publishing) of my songs’ and that would have been the end of it. Biz Markie, all he had to do was withdraw the track. Instead the belligerence of these people defies logic.”
It’s clearly a side of the business O’Sullivan greatly dislikes, especially when he’d just prefer to get on singing all those great songs.
Gilbert O’Sullivan will perform at Vicar Street, Dublin (Tuesday and Wednesday); Cork Opera House (Friday, June 5); University Concert Hall, Limerick (Saturday, June 6); and The National Opera House, Wexford (Monday, June 8). www.gilbertosullivan.net.
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